Central Division Preview- Dallas Stars, Here We Go Again
At this time last year, the Stars were projected by many in the hockey community as the dark-horse team to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final. Why not, right? They got back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and even though they were promptly dispatched in the opening round by Anaheim, it was a step in the right direction. The summer hit and media darling GM Jim Nill went and traded for former Ottawa center (and Predators naysayer) Jason Spezza. That, along with the signing of Ales Hemsky made their top six forward group among the NHL’s best. They even signed former Predator back-up goaltender Anders “the Giant” Lindback to spell starter Kari Lehtonen on occasion and sure up the net. SURELY this team would be a force and there’s nothing that can stop them…. Because if you listen to the media, everything Jim Nill touches turns to gold (or green?). Unless I’m forgetting something….
Defense???? Who needs defense? Dallas’ opening night blue line consisted of Alex Goligoski, Trevor Daley, Brenden Dillon, Patrik Nemeth, Kevin Connauton and Jordie (I’m just here because of my little brother) Benn. Does that even remotely look like a Stanley Cup contending group? While everybody was drinking the green kool-aid (gross), I had this team pegged from the opening drop of the puck. Yes, they will be exciting, but they’re going to lose a lot of 5-4 type games. Sure enough, they finished the season 2nd in scoring, but gave up the 4th most goals, only to be outdone by doormats Edmonton, Buffalo and Arizona. That was good enough to place them a distant 6th in the Central and out of the playoffs for the 6th time in 7 years (hi Spezza!).
Fast forward to this summer, and they are AGAIN being picked to make some noise. For the second straight off-season, they made a big splash with a trade. This time around, they helped Chicago with their salary cap purge by acquiring 33 year old Patrick Sharp. Sharp’s numbers declined greatly last year, tallying just 43 pts in 68 games, his worst points per game since 2007. There’s no question his best days are behind him, but the good news for Dallas is they have enough talent surrounding him that he can possibly return back to form. Their top six up front is as formidable as any with Spezza and Tyler Seguin patrolling the middle, flanked by NHL leading scorer (and older brother apologist) Jamie Benn, Sharp, Hemsky, and Valeri Nichushkin, who missed all but 8 games last year due to injury.
Although the Sharp acquisition cost them Daley, they quickly went out and replaced him with another former Blackhawk in Johnny Oduya. Oduya is an analytical junkie’s favorite and they feel like he is a major upgrade. Oduya was brought in to stabilize the defensive zone and mentor youngsters John Klingberg and Jyrki Jokipakka. Although Oduya is better than what they had, they still have some work to do on the blue line.
Goaltending…. My favorite. I’m just going to refer to Dallas as “Chicago-south” from now on. The Stars went out and signed ANOTHER former Stanley Cup winner with the Blackhawks, Antti Niemi. With his signing, they have over $10M locked up between the pipes for two goalies who woefully underperformed last year. The bottom line is they are paying these guys 1A money when they’re both really closer to 2A and 2B. Niemi’s Sharks didn’t make the playoffs last year either and he finished with a GAA of 2.59, hardly worthy of a big contract. The hope is that “Let-a-ton-in” will be motivated to perform with Niemi around to push him as the starting goalie. Although the net will likely be a timeshare to start, I think Niemi will eventually pull away with the job. If that should happen, I think Dallas ends up trading Lehtonen to a possible contender or playoff bubble team in desperate need of a goalie.
Nill did his best Back to the Future impression and assembled last year’s team as if it was 30 years in the past when the NHL was wide-open and scoring was at an all-time high. I think he learned his lesson with the Oduya signing. He will help keep the puck out of the net, but they are still depending on young guys to play significant roles on defense. Dallas will be a bubble team this year and I have them finishing 5th in the Central. As the last two years have shown, being 5th is still good enough to make it to the playoffs, so I’m penciling them in as the 2nd wild card team.
Where do you have the Stars finishing?